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The Luxembourg Sonata

By Denis LABAYLE Sofitel Luxembourg Le Grand Ducal

From the first notes, I feel the piano’s complicity. The keys are docile, the sound is excellent and the acoustics of the hall are nearly perfect. I endlessly play and play again my two pieces. Without mistake, without anxiety, but also without spectators. Tonight everything will be different. I finish the second movement of the sonata when I am kindly asked to leave the hall for the maestro. Without meeting him, I take refuge in my dressing room. The room is quiet, secure, with a deep armchair for relaxation and an upright piano for calming any lingering doubts. Drinks and sandwiches are brought, but I’m not hungry. I prefer to rest, hoping this will help me endure the long wait. I doze off. When the director of the Philharmonie arrives to greet me, I know that the moment is near. I put on my new shirt, slip on my rented morning coat, check in the mirror that my white bow tie is straight. Now I only have to wait. My two scores are on the table. I read them one more time. I wipe my hands. They are sweatier than on the day of the competition. Supposedly, before a parachute jump the real fear comes only the second time around. The first time, you’re afraid of what you don’t know (falling into the void); the second time, you’re afraid of what you know (falling into the void).
I try to reassure myself by minimizing my role in the concert. The crowd is expecting nothing from me; they aren’t here for me. I’m just an appetizer. At best, they will be indifferent, at worst full of pity. And yet, if I could somehow touch them … From then on, everything goes very quickly. Someone comes for me. He says the hall is full, wishes me good luck and sends me onto the stage to polite applause. Greeting the crowd, I glance at the second row, to the right. She’s there. Next to her, my father’s seat is empty. I take my seat at the piano and suddenly all is silent. Not a sound, not a whisper or a cough. I need to quickly play the first notes in order to fill this void. I wipe my sweaty palms. The spotlight is blinding, but I must forget about it. Everything around me must disappear. As she said: Isolate yourself, concentrate, think of only one person. I start Ondine with her in mind. My fingers stroke the keys, summoning the rippling water. I have never played this difficult piece with such fluidity. And when the last notes sound, when I lift my hands slowly from the keys, I raise my head and imagine my stranger leaning on the piano. She is smiling. So? What do you think? Listen to the applause. You surprised them. Keep going, and you will move them, but be careful: Schumann is not Ravel, he requires more than virtuosity, he requires heart.
The crowd is silent, she disappears. This is the moment of truth. The silence is black and heavy. Solitude fills me. The stage is no longer present, I’m in the dining room. The room next door is dark from morning to night. My mother wants the shutters closed, as if she has decided that from now on she will have no more light. On the other side of the door, she is waiting for me to play — for her, just like every night. After school, I would kiss her emaciated cheeks without really looking, trying not to see the signs of decay on her face. I know that she has spent the day alone, in the empty house, stuck in bed, fighting the illness that is ravaging her. Since morning she has been awaiting this moment. I have nothing to offer her but my music and Schumann’s Sonata Opus 11, her favorite piece. Before, I could only play the introduzione . Tonight, for the first time, I will offer her the entire sonata, including the magnificent allegro un poco maestoso . The door is open, I’m thinking only of her.

But my dreams distract me, my hands are getting ahead of me. My god, they’re playing too fast, accelerating as if to be done with it. I must slow them down, they must listen to me. Fortunately, they know the way and have so far not made a mistake. So I use the allegro vivace to regain control, to impose my rhythm, the rhythm that we had always used to calm her pain. It is a harmonious mix of softness, poetry and introspection. Little by little, I feel the music working its magic. The melody slows her breathing. More than words, more than gestures, more than drugs, Schumann eases suffering.
When my fingers play the last notes of the final allegro, I feel as if I have been lost in a mysterious silence. I am exhausted, drained, depleted. I hear a sudden crackling. The hall is lit up, and the crowd is applauding. As if in thanks. I realize that they were there, behind me, in the dining room, that for a moment they shared my disarray. I stand, I bow, I even hear some bravos. I head off the stage and the maestro is coming toward me, clapping his hands.
He congratulates me, whispers to me, “You moved us.” As I walk off, Michäel Sterner sits before the piano and takes over the spotlight.
Backstage, I am congratulated and seated in the technical booth behind a window overlooking the stage. From there, I can follow the maestro’s skillful performance, but I’m not listening. I’m reliving in slow motion these moments that have changed my life. Slowly, I realize. I think of my mother, of how it had pleased her to listen to me play. Without our terrible afternoons of silent complicity, would I have played Schumann so truly? From my perch, I search in the darkness for the woman who had advised me. I’m sitting too far to the side to see her. I wish the concert would end. I feel more than gratitude toward her. The maestro bows amid a frenzy of applause. I am brought to a reception room, where admirers are crowding around the maestro. A horde of journalists is questioning him, and as there is not room for them all, some of them turn their attention to me. Who am I, where do I live, what are my plans? I am suddenly indifferent to this media attention about which I had long fantasized. I answer dispassionately. I’m thinking of the stranger.

She’s the one I’m looking for among the admirers. I would so like to take her far from this crowd. The room empties, there are handshakes, goodbyes and more bravos. I am brought back to the hotel, and still I have not seen her. Her absence deflates my joy. In my luxurious suite, I feel tired, disoriented, and alone. Early the next morning, I hope to find someone who knows her at the front desk. I ask them all. No one remembers her. I describe her to the hotel’s director of client relations, but she says there has never been a young woman with short, dark named Laure on her staff. She even says that she has never had an intern working for her. At 10, I take the train back to Paris, taking my strange memory with me.
Since then, at every concert I instinctively glance at the second row, looking for a woman dressed in black. And when solitude engulfs me, I turn to Ravel. Only he fulfills me: I need only play Ondine, the first part of Gaspard de la nuit , to see her again, leaning on my piano, smiling exactly like that September day when, in Luxembourg, luck brought me a muse.

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